Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Busy Visitor


We're having work done on our yard and have an assortment of plants still in their containers arrayed about the landscape. This bumble bee, after having inspected every plant on the lot, found only the lavender to his liking. He visited each flower on the plant exactly once and then left the premises.

Hope Is Not A Strategy*

As tight-fisted as Mother Time is, those of us who pursue writing as a sidelight have some particularly hard decisions to make.

In my writing life, I've tended to shoot for the moon, writing spec scripts and novels in the hope of inducing heady auctions that end in six figure deals and an ocean view home in the hills of Malibu.

The difficulty with such a strategy, if you can call it a strategy at all, is that it carries the stench of desperation, much like the dreamers among us who will be saved by the big lottery win.

Even ignoring the financial aspects, the external rewards for novelists and screenwriters are very few and far between. It's possible, even likely, that a writer will labor for months and years at a time without having any real sense of whether he's doing publishable work (or even work that has any drive, makes any sense, deserves to be written).

Another strategy, one that's making more and more sense to me in recent days, is to take a more balanced approach, writing both long and short-form fiction, submitting to markets both small and large.

The benefits, on the feedback side, are immediate and obvious. If you're doing good work, you have an opportunity to be told so, and to be rewarded in the short term. If, on the other hand, you're crafting dreck, you'll know that soon, as well, and won't have wasted months of your life chasing something that has no prospect of publication.

Another nice side-effect of chasing the smaller story is that this kind of writing demands precision of craft that you may well not develop writing only longer stories. The efficiency necessary to telling a good story in 500 words forces a level of craft that few people who've only written novels can understand. And this skill ultimately extends very well to the longer forms, when the backbone, high-pressure scenes require all the craft you can muster.

I have no idea, yet, how to ballance the work on my novel with the shorter forms. For now, I'm probably leaning too heavily toward the latter. But I am utterly convinced that a solid balance between the two will give me the level of feedback I need from the world and will improve my craft.


*This is the title of a book on sales. While I am not a salesman, the thoughts implied by the title alone nearly convinced me to buy the book.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Summer's First Plunge


My son and I both love the water. At the age of four, he was swimming reasonably well, but by the age of five, he was a demon in the pool.

In recent days, it's finally gotten warm enough to enjoy.

During summers and falls, there are days when we blissfully ignore time... swimming, playing, laughing for hours on end. It's the purest joy we have together.

Water is the only tranquilizer we need.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

For A Song

by Renee Holland Davidson

Kayla slouches in the passenger seat, staring out the bug-splattered windshield. The newly tarred highway stretches in front of the Buick, the afternoon heat steaming from the road in shimmering waves. For hours, they have passed nothing but scrub brush and the hard dirt of the desert.

Her mom is singing along with the radio, her voice cigarette-smoke husky. The last few notes dissipate into the stale air-conditioned air, and almost immediately another one begins.

"Honey, listen, here's our song!"

Our song? Her song, she means. The one she auditioned with--the one that won her the job with the band. The band that is leaving tomorrow for a three-month tour of the South.

Kayla's mom reaches over to squeeze her knee, then frowns when her daughter's body stiffens. "Come on, Kayla, don't be like that. You'll have a great time at your Grandma's. You love her, don't you?"

"Yeah," Kayla says in a bare whisper.

"You know how much she spoils you."

"Yeah," she says again.

"This could be my big break, Kayla. You know that. I might never get another chance."

Kayla sighs. "I know, Mama. I know."

"Okay, then. I'll be back in no time, just you see." Kayla's mom pats her leg, then turns the radio louder. Her voice blends smoothly with the woman crooning over the airwaves.

Ahead of them, a red mini-van pulls onto the highway. A small mountain of duffle bags is tied to its roof and a complicated-looking carrier holding four bicycles rises up from the trailer hitch.

The Buick catches up to the van and Kayla peers inside as they cruise side by side. The family looks like it belongs in a corny commercial--the dad behind the wheel wearing a fishing hat, lures dangling from its rim, the mom in the passenger seat, a red bandana tied around her neck. Behind them, sit two little kids--a blond-haired boy and his freckle-faced sister.

Kayla can tell they're singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider because their fingers are crawling through the air in front of them.

The mom isn't half as pretty as her own mom, Kayla thinks. Her hair's frizzy and her bare arms jiggle with each spider step. But she's got a pretty smile and her eyes sparkle behind round glasses as she turns in her seat to look at her children.

Even though Kayla can't hear them, she knows they're singing loudly because their heads are thrown back and their grinning mouths are open wide.

Kayla's fingers move in her lap. She sings under her breath, stealing a glance at her mother.

Her mom's singing loudly too, a wide smile covering her face. And her eyes are sparkling, just like the lady in the mini-van.

Except Kayla's mom isn’t looking at her--her eyes are staring straight ahead, focused on a place far beyond the cloudless desert sky.


"For A Song" was originally published in the Summer 2006 edition of flashquake. www.flashquake.org

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Begging for Help For 'Beg the Question'

For reasons I couldn't begin to explain, I'm hearing people (from journalists, to fiction writers, to co-workers) use the phrase 'beg the question' with numbing regularity. Or rather, I'm hearing people mis-use the phrase 'beg the question' with numbing regularity.

To 'beg the question' does not mean to invite the question, to prompt the question, to encourage the obvious question. To beg the question is to answer a question with circular logic (i.e. 'the federal government is inefficient because it wastes so much money.' Wasting money is another another way of saying that it's inefficient; it does not answer the question 'Why?'

See here for a more thorough explanation.


Coming Soon... debunking the myth that ree-la-tors actually exist (and sell houses for a living).

Friday, April 20, 2007

Thursday, April 19, 2007

S is for Stupid


Last night, I decided, right before my writing class, to leave my camera at home. No particular reason. Just had that brainstorm.

So, naturually, at our break I looked out to see my oft-photographed tree (you'll find it elsewhere on this site, in a couple different guises, if you roam around) and was greeted with the image above... a partial moon with even the dark aspects visible, and Venus glowing like a bright star above. The sky had a rich, beautiful fade from orange to blue that you don't see here.

All I had was my lousy Motorola phone cam to capture the moment. So I took a few shots and walked away cursing my inexplicable ineptitude.

My Fan Club Shrinks By One

A couple days ago, my wife and I were arguing about something or other—maybe it’s fairer to say we were arguing about everything or other—when she moved on to an editorial of my writing life.

It neither started nor ended on a happy note.

“You’re a failure,” she said. “As a writer you’re a complete failure. You should give it up.”

ahem…

Not exactly the unflinching, hard-nosed criticism* I was talking about in this post.

Perhaps I can get her to go back and re-read my thoughts—a quick refresher course, let’s call it—just to be sure she really gets the gist.

Or perhaps not.




* not really a criticism of the writing, at all. She hasn't read any of it since I came back to writing after a long hiatus.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Writing Tip: Put Your Body Where Your Mouth Is

Writing offers us the opportunity to explore locations, emotions, and behaviors we will never experience in life. We get to climb mountains whose continents we won't ever actually touch, turn the tables--in very public ways, if we choose--on lovers who've hurt us, and conduct racy, skillful affairs with near-perfect (but not too-perfect) paramours.

But that's not all the opportunity that writing offers us.

A few years back, I was a member of a small writing group that met weekly for reading/critique. Somewhere along the way, the group of us decided that there were a handful of experiences that might work to our benefit as writers.

Sad to say, torrid illicit affairs didn't make the cut.

One of the things that did make the cut, however, was to witness an autopsy.

One of our members at the time was friends with a recently published mystery novelist and managed, through her, to get us an appointment at the coroner's office, where they agreed to put us through the same scared-straight process that drunk drivers face.

The day of our appointment, we were ushered us into a small meeting room, where we watched a video documentary detailing the adventures of various unfortunate drunk drivers.

In the worst case, a woman at a bar had accepted the offer of a ride from a would-be one-night-stand. Soon after they left the bar on his rocket-like Kawasaki, with her hugging him close from behind, the driver took the wrong half of a fork in the road.

On the good side was a freeway onramp, on the bad, a cul-de-sac. Fifty yards and ninety-plus-miles-per-hour later, he slammed into a brick wall, turning himself into a stew and cutting the top half of his passenger’s head off.

The officer on the tape described the pain of explaining to the dead woman’s husband how she had come to her end.

After the sobering film, we were given white scrubs and masks, which we put on over our street clothes, and then ushered through a cooled room filled with occupied body bags.

For a minute or so, we stood by a steel door leading to the ‘operating’ room. The group of us was nervous, and some of us were actually willing to admit it.

When we entered the large white autopsy room, we came on three stainless tables aligned perpendicular to the wall. Atop them lay three corpses in varying stages of their final physical exam. One was a Vietnam Vet who’d overdosed in his apartment and gone unmissed for several long, hot days. Another was a Santa Ana gang member who’d been shot multiple times and left to die on the beach. The third was an 80-plus-year-old woman who’d fallen in the tub, broken her hip and later died of an embolism.

You might believe that watching CSI or reading bleak horror novels would tell you enough to understand this experience—and perhaps to write about it—but you’d be wrong. If you’ve got even the slightest bit of humanity to you, there is a somber gravity to a room like this and its activities. Nothing about that feeling is effectively conveyed by the carnival act that is CSI and every novel I’ve read that touches on the subject. Even when the basic mechanical details come out right—the behavior and the tools and the smells are described correctly—the feeling doesn’t.

The point of all this rambling, I guess, is to encourage you to use every excuse you can to extend your experience. Let the fact that you call yourself a writer drive you to embrace adventures you might otherwise avoid (or maybe just ignore).

I’m not one who believes you have to have experienced something to write about it sensibly. But there is no doubt that the living of a thing will flavor your writing. And, almost inevitably, that will improve your stories.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Novelist's How-To That You Should Check Out (after bookmarking this site, of course)

A while back, I stumbled across Crawford Kilian's writing site.

I found it interesting enough to check back occasionally but didn't turn it into what I would call a regular stop. More recently, though, I noticed his Write a Novel site. It's a series of 18 pdf documents he's published defining aspects of getting a novel written and published (ranging from Hard Facts for First Time Novelists to Ten Points on Plotting to Reading a Contract).

I wish the material were presented as HTML as well as pdf. But this is a trifling complaint--a niggling exercise in looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Definitely worth a look if you have any thought at all of writing a novel (and aren't already a wizened veteran).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Clarifying Priorities

In line with my Call Me Sybil post, I've been trying to clarify for myself where I'm headed and what, exactly, my goals are.

I have a long history of divided allegiance, since I've tended to fall in love with myriad pursuits. In past moments of clarity, I've cast aside drawing/painting, my glorious Stratocaster, and my Taylor Made golf clubs in lieu of a more serious focus on things like building a computing career that could pay the rent and, now, figuring out--really figuring out--what I want to accomplish as a writer.

I noticed that even a quick glance at my blog--the link list in particular--might lead a reader to question my dedication to the writing life. Most of the links there relate to photography and other visual arts. Not a sin, clearly, but is that where my attention should be--or where a visitor might hope to focus?

I realized, too, that my link list echoes my behavior when I'm spending time on the web, and that both of these things need to change.

Just as I decided way back that the world didn't need yet another crappy Eric Clapton wannabe singing the blues and that I wouldn't become Picasso or Tiger Woods, I've decided to park my meandering exploration of the arts.

There may be people who can take the wandering path, who can allow their focus to wander from interest-to-interest, and still achieve something meaningful. I am not one of them.

Instead, I need a systematic, thoughtful approach to building something for myself as a writer. I need clear, structured goals--both short and long term--and I need to bleed every minute for all it's worth in the pursuit of improving my writing and my prospects.

As a happy side-effect, the link list should actually become something of more direct value to those of you who've come here to read about writing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Nearby Baptist Church



The other day, as I was driving to the library to return something, I passed this church in the twilight. I got out to take a few pictures and was greeted by the pastor's son as he pulled up out front. Though I was a perfect stranger, he offered to move his car so I could get my shots and asked if I would send them to him.

Late that night I e-mailed four of the stronger pics and got a complimentary e-mail back.

Nothing remarkable in the whole interaction, but it made me feel good.

Call Me Sybil

Yesterday was an odd day. I spent a fair bit of my working day writing code, something I don't do much lately but enjoy tremendously when I get to take on an interesting challenge.

I drove home blasting The Fixx' Reach The Beach--a favorite from way back--and feeling pretty high.

After an hour at home, I headed off for the writing class. Even before class started, I had two interesting conversations with nearly-perfect strangers.

But, soon after the opening bell, my mood began to change--collapse would be a better word for it, I suppose. I made a few comments on other people's writing that sounded insipid or absurd, and I couldn't seem to connect solidly with the going's on around me.

Then my mind wandered a bit as I began to get annoyed with myself for my general lack of focus. I wondered if my new-found interest in flash fiction was a deflection from the hard work I still need to do on my novel.

Eventually, my most recent story, a 500 word piece of flash fiction destined for an online writing contest, came up for critique. Mostly, the reviews weren't good. This didn't bother me, really, since I do take my own advice about seeking out and taking advantage of strong criticism. But there was an awkward sort of vacuum at the beginning of the discussion of the story. Is that pity I hear ringing in the silent air?

It was only thanks to an insightful suggestion at the break that I came away having any clue how to improve the story.

In the second half of the festivities, I braved the waters again and commented on another writer's work. This time, as I heard myself, I thought, Am I as big a bloviating half-wit as I sound to my ears? And thus, my commentary came to an end.

I'm not generally a moody person (ignore the derisive cackling you hear in the background; it's my wife and she takes issue with that statement. It's My Blog. My Story.) I'm also not usually riddled with all-encompassing self-doubt. But last night I felt incompetent to even take command of the simplest conversation. A fraud as far as the eye could see. A tortured genius minus the vital genius part.

Bedtime couldn't come soon enough.

Fortunately, this morning I awoke with the clouds having parted. I even felt mildly optimistic.

As I drove to work, I remembered a blog post I had read very recently and a quote that was its central theme:

If I don't feel like a fraud at least once a day, then I'm not reaching far enough

Writing Tip: Look It Up. Write It Down

When I was a freshman in college, taking a 200-level English composition class, my professor was a curmudgeonly hard-ass*. Yes, he was a good-hearted curmudgeon, but we didn't get that 'til much later.

After we students had delivered our first essay--written under the gun as a 45-minute in-class assignment--he returned our graded papers with the dramatic assessment, "I see there's one person in this class who wants to pass."

Having gotten a strong 'A' and some nice praise from my previous writing professor, I assumed I was that one.

Wrong.

My essay earned me a 'D.'

The one person who wanted to pass proudly accepted her 'C.'


If this had been the first response to my writing in the world of high academia, I would have been badly shaken. As it was, the 'D' unnerved me and forced me to rethink where I stood.

Anyway, this is all just a long-ish preamble to set the stage and the tone for the real tip.

In addition to the writing assignments, this class required us to read many broad-ranging essays from prominent writers (John Updike, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, and many, many more). Early in the semester, as we were discussing one of these essays, our professor stopped, pointed to one of the students--let's call her Gena--and said, "What does the word cleigenmeiser** mean?"

After doing an uncomfortable cheek-shift in her chair, Gina said meekly, "I don't know."

From the look on the professor's face, she might as well have relieved herself on the aged tile floor. With a resigned sigh, he pointed to someone else and repeated the question. The response, predictably, was similar.

One more time, he glanced around the room for a victim. My only thought was, how the hell can I make myself invisible?

After a third student embarrassed himself, the professor said, "The word is here in the essay. Right here on the page. If you don't know what it means, how can you possibly understand what you're reading?"

It's all very obvious, I know, but there wasn't one of us who had done the obvious thing.

The professor continued. "If you see a word you don't understand, Look. It. Up. Write the definition in the margins if you have to. And keep going back to that definition until you've got it down."

The notion of avoiding embarrassment at his hands was strong motivation to follow that advice, and I have defaced many books in the wake of that lecture.

Anyway, this memory came charging back last night when someone in our writing class mentioned that she had no idea what a word in one of the stories meant. I wanted to shout out, "Look it up. Write it down." But God gave me just enough manners to hold off 'til I could write this blog post.


*Sadly, I can neither remember nor find his name.

** I have no idea what word he pointed out. But the point is that it was as foreign to everyone in that room as I'd expect cleigenmeiser to be to you now.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Monday, April 09, 2007

Retreat

David swam in Laura's wake, watching her legs scissor-kick through the cold waters of Squam Lake, her motion graceful and strong.

He broke the surface just as she climbed the ladder to the wooden raft. Her bathing suit, a white one-piece, lay across the crease of her leg and rear-end, a spot he watched until she turned away.

As he climbed up himself, his breath came hard, a reaction to the cold as much as the exertion. He lay prone beside her, head resting on forearms, and faced her from no more than two feet.

With her hair slicked back, Laura’s face looked more angular, her hazel eyes larger and more alive.

“You lost," she said. "Again.”

“Because I don’t bother to care for my instrument.”

She turned up on her side to face him. “Is there nothing to live for?”

“There is in moments like this." He watched a bead of water draw a course down the length of her collar bone. "Besides, losing is worth it just to watch you move.”

The awkward smile appeared again, the smile of a woman who can't comprehend a compliment.

He reached a hand to her face, slowly traced the line of her upper lip.

She closed her eyes as his finger wandered to her lower lip and rested there briefly. When she opened them again, she gently kissed the back of his hand.

"These seven days give me life, Laura."

The words seemed to pain her. She eased herself to a seated position and hung her legs off the side of the raft. "I wish you wouldn't say things like that."

Following suit, David sat beside her, thigh-to-thigh, and put his arm around her shoulder. They sat silent, their wet bodies breathing against each other, and watched a pair of loons pass overhead before he spoke again. "When will Ron be making his grand appearance?"

A derisive little sigh escaped her, and her glance fell to the water at her feet. "He missed his flight. He won't get here 'til late tonight, early tomorrow morning."

Looking out at the empty lake, David failed to suppress a thin smile. "Why does he even bother?"

Now toying absently with the low seam of her bathing suit, fingers grazing her thigh, Laura gave a faint shrug. "So he can claim he did it."

David started to say something, then froze before his intended words reached his lips. "Jesus. Why am I so smug? My wife won't even make that effort."

She turned to face him then and held his look--from only inches away. "Can you just answer one question for me, David?"

"No. I can't." He shook his head, a motion so subtle he couldn't be sure she could even see it. "I made a lousy, inescapable deal, Laura. The story hasn't changed." He could smell her now, as she leaned against him. There was water, and woods, and sand, and something more--not sweat, exactly, but the scent of her exertion. He breathed it slowly and tried to will his mind to hold on.

"Did you even talk to your kids yesterday?"

He nodded. "Long enough for them to tell me they were headed for their gradma's." He moved his hand to her thigh and took her fingers in his, intertwined them.

Embracing his hand in both of hers, she said, "Do you think of me? Back in the world, do you ever think of me?"

"I try not to. But yes. I think of you."

"I hate that Pam gets your time. That she's the one you put your arm around. That she's the one you make love to."

"Well, you and she have something in common, then, 'cause she hates those things, too."

Laura laughed despite herself, then fell to an awkward silence. The only motion between them was the easy turn of her foot in the water. "Sometimes it all feels so goddamn juvenile."

"What? Wanting the person you're with to be something more than a stranger? Wanting to be loved?"

"We're not 14 any more."

"Immaturity's not our problem, Laura. Our problem is that we couldn't wait long enough to find--"

From a distance, a faint trilling--three short rings, a pause, and then a repeat--brought his thought to an end.

Laura, who knew the tone as well as he did, stood on the edge of the raft, said, "I think her ears must be burning," and dived once again into the cold water.

David sat still on the edge of the raft, watching her wake fade as, onshore, the phone continued to ring.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Stephen King's Algebra Cure

my long-time friend


Back in my early teen years, as a student at Trident Junior High School--I believe I was in 8th grade--I had an algebra teacher named Mrs. Smith who hated me (one of two teachers in my student career who made this point evident).

Generally, I was a mediocre student at the time (and why not? Destined as I was to play third base for the Dodgers, who cared if I could comprehend the Pythagorean Theorem?). But I wasn't the type to cause trouble in class. For the most part, the worst that could be said about me was that I was invisible.

The trouble, in this particular class, began in the early days of the school year, when I had the chutzpah to ask questions after several of Mrs. Smith's barely-coherent algebraic explanations. Unfortunately, I found even her explanations of the explanations wanting. And I asked more questions.

Well, to say that this displeased Mrs. Smith would be an absurd understatement. Rather than continue to struggle with her ineptitude and mine, she took to ridiculing me. Innocent questions triggered snide responses and occasional laughter from my classmates.

Several poor tests and several frustrating weeks later, I began to check out.

It wasn't long after this point, during yet another Greek lecture from Mrs. Smith, that I noticed that Joel, the kid in the next seat, was busy reading a novel.

The act was thrilling and scary and subversive. And I was as jealous of Joel's escape as I could imagine being of any person for any act.

Trying not to draw attention to myself, I managed to spy the cover of the book he was reading. It was The Shining, by Stephen King. And below it sat The Island by Peter Benchley.

I didn't know either of the authors or their books, but before the end of class I had resolved to go buy myself a similar escape.

Immediately after school, I rode my bike to Sprouse Rietz, a local general-purpose store that boasted the only decent paper-back book rack around. Nearly as fast as my eyes could scan the top row, I found both The Shining and The Island. Within minutes, I had made my purchase and left the store feeling like a rebellious adult.

In the days that followed, I devoured The Shining, reading at home alone, at breaks at school, in bed before sleep. I can't remember if I ever had the cajones to read during Mrs. Smith's class--though I doubt it. But that truth really doesn't matter. The book, itself, was the meaningful climax of this story. It enthralled and terrified me, made me forget my algebra woes, and awoke new ambitions in me.

Mrs. Smith's theorems now lay long-forgotten (to the extent that I ever understood them at all), but my flight from her gifts taught me things that will stay with me as long as coherence does.

For that, I suppose I should be grateful.


P.S. I did read The Island, as well. But it didn't impress me in any of the ways The Shining did.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Tradition


As a kid, I always loved the Easter egg tradition but haven't a clue where it came from. It has no obvious connection with the true meaning of the day--is, in truth, about as disconnected as anything I can think of.

But lovely nonetheless.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Its Own Kind of Beauty

image crop

I had stopped at Home Depot to buy something boring when I saw the clouds, the God light, and a lamppost all aligned in an interesting way. I grabbed my little Fuji, took a handful of differently framed shots, then headed back to put the cam in my truck.

Before I got there, I saw--out of the corner of my eye--a crow flying lazily into the scene. I sensed that his angle would take him right by the sunburst. So I hurried back into position, where I had just enough time to fire off one last shot.


the full shot

A friend, who liked the shot, lamented the powerlines traversing the scene. I told him that they didn't bother me, since they represent where I live. They are a part of the landscape--which I find beautiful even in their presence.

I don't live in Yosemite, but I make a point of trying to find the beauty and the interest--unvarnished--in the place I do live.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Legacy -- Part II


by Renee Holland Davidson

read Part I


Bear didn't return until almost dark. He trotted through the door, small twigs and leaves embedded in his fur, a man's work glove in his mouth. Dropping the glove at my feet, he sat down, panting happily.

"A present for me?" I scratched the top of his head, and plucked a few leaves from his back. "Looks like you had quite a time out there, old boy."

I was up early the next day, having allowed myself a few hours of book browsing before starting work on my novel. I was rummaging through the bookshelves, when I spied a book entitled "The History of Stoddard Mountain." As I yanked it out, I dislodged the cookbook next to it. It flew off the shelf and landed on the floor, opened to a recipe for tuna casserole, a piece of cardboard sticking straight up from between the pages.

The piece of cardboard turned out to be a postcard--a picture of Butchart Gardens in British Columbia on the front. I turned it over. It was addressed to Rose Murdock in care of the Stoddard County Library. Written in a thick black scrawl was the one-word message: "Soon."

Soon? What was the meaning of this cryptic message? And why had the postcard been mailed to the library? Had my grandmother fled up north? Was she still there, living out her golden years with her true love?

Excited at this discovery, I began rifling through any books I thought might have been my grandmother's--more cookbooks, sewing books, romances. I raked through dozens of books before I found the letter in a slim volume about herbs. It had also been sent in care of the library, written in the same heavy script as the postcard.

Among endearments and vows of eternal love, were pleas to leave Elliot. It's time, Rose, time to start our life together. The letter was signed with only the single initial "M."

I thought of my own husband and the too-many tumultuous years we'd spent together. Paul had never been physically abusive, but he'd been cruel and controlling. What I had taken for love and concern in the early years of our marriage had only been his desire for dominance over my mind and body.

In sixteen years, he had run off most of my friends and shattered my self-confidence. I had become bitter and depressed. There were days when it had been difficult to climb out of bed, and, I admit, days when I understood Grandpa Elliot's final solution.

I slept fitfully that night, hearing every sound emanating from the mountain--raccoons scratching in the trees, coyotes howling, the hoot of owls. I thought back to my childhood, remembered many camping trips where the sounds of nature lulled me to sleep. That night, those same sounds blared like warning shrieks in my head.

Bear woke me the next morning, licking my cheek with his grainy tongue. The temperature had dropped drastically overnight and before I let him out, I shrugged into a thick pair of sweats topped with my down jacket.

"Need to make a fire," I said aloud. Two days out here and I'm already talking to myself. I laughed, but even to my own ears, it sounded hollow.

I grabbed my keys from the kitchen peg and made my way to the shed in back. Bear stood behind me as I unlocked the padlock and pulled open the door. I walked inside and sighed. Behind a small pyramid of wood, were mountains of Grandpa Elliot's junk, and crammed in a corner, the steamer trunk I still needed to empty. As I grabbed a log, I heard Bear barking wildly outside. I tiptoed to the door, holding the piece of wood as if it were a Louisville Slugger.

I peered out the door, but saw nothing except Bear running in circles, barking ferociously. "What's the matter, boy?" I knelt down and patted my thigh. "Come here, buddy. It's okay."

His barking shrank to a whine, but he refused to come. Then, with one final yelp, he turned tail and ran off into the woods.

I made myself a breakfast of tea and toast and ate on the sofa in front of the fire. Drowsy from lack of sleep and hypnotized by the flames, I soon fell fast asleep.

I dreamt about Paul--Paul in this cabin, in my bed, smirking as he pulled back the sheets to reveal Rose lying naked by his side. Paul becoming Elliot--drunk, wild-eyed, waving a shotgun as Bear flees into the woods. And I, watching from a darkened closet, wrapped in a blood-splattered quilt, too afraid to move.

I woke up shivering. The fire had gone out and the air was still and frigid. I sat up, pulling my wrap tighter around me. The cabin walls seemed to shrink; the ceiling spun in drunken circles. My breath emerged in frosty, shallow gasps. Never--not even as a child--had I believed in hauntings or evil spirits. I shook my head forcefully from side to side. No! I was not losing my mind--it was only the nightmares, the lack of sleep.

I stood up, trembling, intending to relight the fire. Suddenly I realized I had the crazy quilt wrapped around me. Screaming, I flung it to the floor.

Scratching on the door almost sent me into hysterics until I recognized Bear's high-pitched bark. I staggered to the door and opened it. Bear ambled in, something glinting in his mouth; I followed him to his blanket.

There, next to the work glove, a red bandana, and a woman's tennis shoe, he dropped his latest prize--a dirt-encrusted pair of reading glasses, one lens missing, a broken gold chain hanging from its arms.

I moaned and sank to the ground, fully understanding Grandpa's despair, much too aware of his blood coursing through my veins as my thoughts turned to the old steamer trunk hiding in the shed.

**The End**

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Legacy -- Part I



by Renee Holland Davidson

The log cabin stood on the north shore of Lake Stoddard, lined on three sides by groves of pine and redwood. For two years, it languished unoccupied--since the day Elliot Murdock took his shotgun to his golden retriever, Max, then turned it upon himself, splattering the gray matter of his gone-mad brain all over the crazy quilt handed down by five generations of Murdocks.

That wasn't the first time a Murdock had fallen victim to a violent end in that log cabin--the family Bible only lists dates of births and deaths, but local legend fills in the rest.

In 1902, Samuel Murdock fell off the sloped roof, narrowly missed a bed of redwood branches, and dove headfirst onto his just-sharpened axe that had somehow gotten lodged in between a tree stump and the three-quarters full rain barrel.

Twenty-three years later, seventeen year-old Susanna Murdock was strangled in her bed two nights before her intended marriage, her fiancé nowhere to be found.

And now, I, Casey Murdock, granddaughter and sole living descendent of the aforementioned Elliot, had come to claim my share of Stoddard Mountain.

***

When I arrived, the Starving Students moving van was parked outside, next to a dust-covered Toyota pick-up. The two movers, both unshaven and beer-bellied, looked well past student age and far from starving. They eyed Bear warily, taking a half step back as he jumped from the passenger seat.

One-hundred-fifteen-pound Rotweilers tend to provoke that kind of reaction, but in Bear's case, it was only for show, since he fully lived up to his given name of Teddy Bear.

The taller guy hooked his thumb at the cabin, doubt wavering over his face. "This it?"

I gave the cabin a once over. "Yep, that's it." I knew what those two were thinking--From a luxury high rise in the city to an eight-hundred-square-foot hovel constructed of rotting Lincoln Logs. Boy, did this lady get the shaft.

The scent of Lysol and lemon oil assaulted me as I opened the door. The janitorial crew I'd hired was finishing up a two-day cleaning junket. "Ma'am, you sure you don't want us to cart this stuff away?" A nervous-looking stick of a man pointed to the far end of the room, where a dozen boxes were stacked.

From where I stood, I could see a chair leg, a rusted toaster, a small wagon wheel, and a faded garden troll poking out from one of the boxes. "No, thanks. I'll take care of it." Any armchair detective knows there's no better way to get to know a person than to dig through his trash.

"Hey, lady, where do you want this?" The movers were inside the front door straining under the weight of my old steamer trunk.

The smaller one dropped his end of the trunk and muttered, "What the hell's she got in here?"

I knew I wasn't meant to hear, but answered anyway, "Books."

"Books?" they both asked incredulously, their eyes roaming over the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined three walls, jam-packed with books of every subject and genre.

"I'm a writer." I didn't add that I'd never been published. "There's no room in here, please take it out to the shed."

There wasn't much more for them to bring in. The only furniture I'd brought was a sofa and bed. Grandpa Elliot's massive oak desk was an antique treasure, and I'd make do with the linoleum-topped kitchen table and mismatched chairs. Add to that a few boxes of household and personal items, and three suitcases of clothes, and that was that. I was officially moved in.

After everyone left, I settled myself at the desk and placed my laptop on the cracked leather blotter. I released a contented sigh and gazed out the window. The magnificent view of the lake and the mountain beyond made me feel at once powerful and insignificant.

Much as I hated the way it sounded, I'd come up to the mountains to “find myself.” No, I wasn't into New Age mumbo-jumbo, or any of that touchy-feely stuff. But when you get home early from work one day and find your husband of sixteen years sliding between the sheets with the woman you thought of as your best friend--well, let's just say it changes a person.

I didn't tell anyone I was going up to Stoddard. I no longer had a family; I was an only child and my dad died before I entered kindergarten, my mom just last year. If told, my friends--the few that I had--would have pestered me, spewing garbage about running away from my problems and all that. And so what if I was? I didn't plan to stay forever, only until I finished my novel, or depleted my savings, whichever came first.

Some might have called it bizarre--moving into a madman's home--but strange as it was, this was my history. My dad's family had been a mystery all my life. Mom had told me he'd had a troubled childhood. He ran away from home at sixteen, then returned a year later to find his father alone, his mother having disappeared three months earlier. Dad left immediately, never to speak to either parent again. When Dad died, Mom had written to Grandpa Elliot, but she'd never heard a word in response.

Behind me, I heard Bear yawning, then the click of his nails on the hardwood floor as he walked to the door. He sat down in front of it, then turned to look at me.

"You want out, huh?"

Bear wagged his tail and let out a small bark.

I walked over and opened the door, "Okay, buddy, be good and stay close."

While Bear was foraging through the forest, I pawed through the contents of Elliot's desk. A quick survey of the top drawer revealed a broken key chain, a Band-Aid box filled with used stamps, an empty disposable lighter and a single eyeglass lens, along with the usual clutter of pens, pencils, paper clips and other assorted junk. The drawer wouldn't open all the way and when I stuck my hand inside, I felt the sharp corner of what felt like a picture frame. One hand wedged inside the drawer, I lifted the front of the drawer to release the frame.

I took one look at the photograph, and almost dropped it in shock. This was the face I saw in the mirror each morning--round with almond-shaped eyes, a small pointed nose, and the slightly jutting chin I hated. If I'd mysteriously gotten the urge to curl my hair into a teased-up flip and donned a Peter-Pan collared blouse, I could have stepped right into that pewter frame, and no one would have known the difference.

She sat at that very desk, the family Bible open in front of her, wire-rimmed glasses hanging from a thin gold chain looped around her neck.

A sudden knock at the door startled me.

Jeb, the proprietor of Stoddard's Sundries and my nearest neighbor, stood on the porch. He was the grizzled caricature of an aging mountain man--coarse features on a weather-beaten face topped by white hair poking out from beneath a grimy John Deere cap. Without a greeting, he said, "Got your load of wood stacked in the shed. I'll add it to your bill." With a quick nod, he turned to leave.

"Wait! Please come in, I want to show you something."

When I handed him the picture, he gave me a quizzical look. "This is..." He stopped, looked up at me, then back down at the picture. "Well, I'll be--you're the spittin' image of her."

"My grandmother?"

"Yeah, your Grandma Rose."

"Did you know my grandparents?"

"Much as anyone did, I guess."

"What were they like?"

"Mostly kept to themselves." His face reddened. "Don't mean any disrespect, but your grandma could be downright spiteful, and your grandpa didn't have much of a spine. Many a day I heard her caterwauling at the poor man. Sometimes your grandpa gave as much as he got, sometimes he just didn't seem to have the strength. When Rose left, Elliot took to drinking and taking potshots at anyone within shotgun range of his property." Jeb looked to the place in front of the fireplace where Grandpa's body had been found. He shook his head. "Guess the booze finally pickled his brain."

"Did you know my dad?"

"Little bit. He was a few years behind me in school. Seemed like a nice enough kid, considering. Suppose these days, child welfare would've snatched him." He shrugged. "No one was surprised when he ran off."

When Jeb left, I sat on the sofa, staring at the freshly laundered and sanitized crazy quilt that hung over its arm. Trembling, I reached out and ran a finger over a square of faded blue flannel, wondering how much bad blood had filtered down the years to run through my own veins.


continued on 4/5


read part II

Monday, April 02, 2007

The One That Got Away



I stepped out my front door--on my way for coffee--early Sunday morning and spotted a mockingbird and a hummingbird facing each other on this wind-blown white birch. The mockingbird was singing away to his utterly bored friend. It was a dream picture, really. But of course my camera was tucked safely in a drawer in our entryway. After perhaps 15 seconds, the birds parted, leaving me with a view of the tree and silky sunrise.

Instead of a really striking image, I come away with a memory of it and with this Big Fish picture.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

10 Tips for Writing Great Dialog (part II)

read part I first

part II

6. Vary your cadence and pacing

Different people think differently. Different people present differently. Make it so when different characters are speaking.

John Abel stood at the threshold of the kitchen, glancing down at the old woman's body. He shook his head, gave a sigh, and whistled as if he were summoning Lassie.

In a moment, officer Mieser strode through the front door behind him. "'s'up, Sarge?"

"You see anything strange about this body? Or is it just me?"

Mieser made a cartoonish popping sound with his lips as he looked down at the woman, considering the question. "Um. Beyond the dead part?"

"Yeah. That's what would be helpful to me. Looking beyond the dead part."

More popping then, and a furrowed brow, before a shrug. "Stumped me."

"Look at the back of Ms. Cromwell's legs."

Squinting now, then a mumbled "Hmm. Pooled blood under the skin. Like she crapped out somewhere--"

"Like she died somewhere else and was moved here?"

Mieser grinned as if he'd just solved a riddle in the Sunday Mini Page. "You got eyes, Sarge."


7. Make your women and men sound different

This is a corollary to the preceding tip.

As much as I'm sure it disappoints the psychiatric and sociological crowd weened on the 60's, men and women are fundamentally, irretrievably, god-blessedly different. And that should show up in your dialog.

In the following, you'd be hard pressed to divine, without the help of clear names, that you were listening to a man and a woman.

"Could you please pull off at the next rest stop? My bladder is screaming for mercy. All that Diet Coke did me in."

Character-B nodded and gave an understanding smile. "My teeth are floating, too. Why didn't you say something earlier?"

"I really didn't want to slow this train any. I know how excited you are to see Graceland."

"Don't be silly. When nature calls, you've got no choice but to heed the summons."

Here's a take that actually has the sex of the speakers baked in.

"Could you please pull off at the next rest stop? My bladder is screaming for mercy. All that Diet Coke did me in."

Character-B nodded and gave a resigned shrug. "I'm tasting piss, too. Was hoping to ignore it to death."

"Well, you let me know where that adventure takes you. As for me, I'd like to make use of the rest stop."

Another shrug from Character-B before, "I guess Elvis'll still be dead after I've drained the snake."


I'm not saying, or even implying, that men have to be crude and women genteel. Rather, I am saying that your men and women should talk in distinctly different ways.


8. Give the dialog breathing room

Depending on where you are in the drama of a conversation, you may need to back off with some fitting description, not so much for what the description, itself, means, but to allow tension to build, to allow the dialog to have a meaningful rhythm.

In a shameless lift from the novel I'm currently working on, two late-teen brothers, Aidan and Luke, are riding in the back of a pickup driven by their father.

“You know the woman who showed up at the house yesterday?”

“Not carnally, no. But I’m aware of her. Why?”


“Dad’s having an affair with her.”

When Luke said nothing in response, Aidan allowed the silence to hang there.
He studied his brother’s face, trying to gauge what form his anger would take, trying to divine how the shock would manifest itself, what his next words would be.

Eventually, Luke began to shake his head. And then he began to laugh. It was a mirthless, bitter sound. “That’s the shocking revelation? Dad’s porking yet another stupid broad?”


9. Don't engage in mundane pleasantries

"Hello, Harold," Gertrude said.

"Morning, Gert. Enjoying this fine weather we're having?"

"Indeed. It's a change I find I quite like."

Harold took a slow breath of the fresh, damp spring air. "I'm beginning to believe that I even sleep better for it."

Please, before I brain myself with a nose-inserted ice-pick, get on with the story. These kind of pleasantries matter in real life. In a story, let the characters be polite enough to dispose of this stuff off-screen.


10. Forget reality

Writers, when faced with some level of criticism, love to fall back on "But that's how it really happened," imagining this to be their trump card. It's not. I only care how it really happened to the extent that it's dramatic.

Real life is free, books aren't. And real life, mostly, is a yawn-fest.

Character talk is smarter, stupider, pithier, funnier, more ridiculous than real-life talk. Don't be fooled by some half-baked allegiance to verisimilitude.

The reality defense has two different permutations. In the first case--not really related to dialog, but interesting anyway--the writer uses it to defend a horribly improbable event coming with equally improbable timing. But the meteor really did bonk Ernest on the head and restore his site on the very same spot he lost his vision to lightning 34 years before. No. No. No. If the meteor has come to save the day, you may not pass Go.

The dialog-related sin has to do with a slavish attempt to replicate real human speech.

Karl muscled his way up to the bar and sat beside Phillis with a pained grunt. "Holly cow. Good Jesus. It's hot. Hot, hot, hot!"

She looked at him and seemed to lean away from his sweating mass.

"Hottest day of the year, easy. Gotta be 105, 106. Fire season come early." He motioned toward the TV hung on the wall. "How long you imagine 'til some God Damn firebug gets his business plastered all over the TV up there? Hot as it is?"

She shrugged without enthusiasm. "I have no idea, Karl. Can't think of it. Real soon, I'd guess. You're ah...you're right about the hot part."

"How's your momma doin' in all this heat? Airconditionin' keepin' up for her?"

"Ah, I guess. As far as I know. She hasn't called to complain. It is hot over to her place, I'll have to admit."

"You want me to come over'n have a look at her air conditioner? Maybe see if a little Karl TLC will help keep the old gal cool? Wouldn't want her gettin' into trouble in this heat."


"That would be real nice, Karl. I'm sure she'd appreciate the help."

"Okay then. It's a deal. A woman like that shouldn't be left to her own devices in this kinda heat."

Yeah. Okay. We get it already. It's hot. Karl is, unfortunately, more interesting than most characters engaged in this kind of droning inanity.

Additionally, the stuttering and the false starts have got to go.

Dialog needs to move with more precision than this. It needs to be more concise. This is particularly true if the topic of the dialog--in this case the heat--isn't central to the story you're telling.

voyeur

he watches the couple in the next booth
conversing without rancor

and wonders how that can be

his wife of too many years
eats her salmon through pursed lips

speaking still without saying a word
angry again
angry always

affronted and ungrateful
she blankets her world with disapproval

he starts to open his mouth

thinks to force a conversation

but talk is worse
talk is misery
discontentment given flight

instead, he forces another bite of shepherds pie
and glances again at the nearby booth

where the woman in profile
smiles an impossible smile